December 23, 2014

The Car of the Future Comes to Singapore

Singapore seems to be a city-state of transportation legends: its trains are state of the art and run on time. More than that: they are free for early-bird commuters - in fact, better than free: if you come in before 7.45am your zero fare comes with a breakfast voucher.

This all makes sense if you consider Singapore's equally legendary commercial spirit: because nothing wastes time and money as traffic congestion. This is why Singapore has a strict cap on the number of personal cars.

But still they have congestion. So now they are considering the idea of inviting a new kind of legend onto their streets: the driverless car.

December 13, 2014

Bicycle Lanes in Cambridge

It's been quite some time since the fare was a quarter. But wandering the old haunts in Cambridge MA over Thanksgiving, I was pleased to find that the Number 1 bus still plies its route over Massachusetts Avenue, between Dudley Station and Harvard Square. The buses have been updated, and the fare column is now equiped with an RFID reader for the CharlieCard that gets you access to Boston's public transport network.

But what is new on Mass Ave is the bike lane that goes both sides along its length.

December 7, 2014

The Diesel to Electric Transition

Diesel engines pack a roaring fuel efficiency. Modern diesel engines, with a turbocharger at the front end and scrubbers at the tail end, pack much higher efficiency than gasoline engines, and are much cleaner than diesel-powered trucks of the past. But are they clean enough?

While modern diesel engines, both for personal and commercial vehicles, no longer spew out a cloud of black smoke wherever they go, they are not entirely "clean". The biggest problem is the small particles in their exhaust, that cause health issues in the lungs. The small particle (or PM2.5) pollution is much reduced with the use of "clean" diesel with very low sulfur content.

But where the sulfur content is high (China, India, Brazil outside the big cities) the use of diesel can still lead to severe smog and extreme particulate pollution. And even where the diesel fuel contains ultra-low concentrations of sulfur (US, Europe), very high densities of diesel vehicles can still cause problems.

December 3, 2014

Making Carbon Dioxide Visible

"If only you could see carbon dioxide," is the sigh often heard from climate activists. If carbon dioxide were not an odourless invisible gas, we would have started to curtail its emissions long ago. It is unfortunate that something so dangerous goes undetected by our human senses.

But what if you could see carbon dioxide? What if it had a colour, say pink, and you can watch pink clouds billowing out of factory stacks, chimneys and tail pipes? Gregg Kleiner has imagined just such a world in his children's book "Please don't paint our planet pink", that visualises the problem and - pardon the pun - paints a solution. (Book review by ClimateMama here).

Laurel Thompson's illustrations for this book may seem whimsical, but they are in fact close to reality.

November 26, 2014

Turkey Dealer

I'm on the road and see a VW dealer. There's snow in the forecast. I'm feeling generous toward my conveyance, so I decide to replace a wiper that has a loose patch of blade with a genuine VW part, from the VW dealer. So I pull into the dealership.

Photo by Ilya Plekhanov

I ask the way to the parts window - this is not the dealership near by me where I usually get my dealer business done - and wait a while. They have to page the clerk twice before he appears. I apologise for cutting into his lunch (it's 1.30pm) and he's gracious about it.

"What can I do for you, ma'am?"

"I just need a replacement wiper blade for my Golf."

"OK. Can I have your name and phone number?"

I blink.

November 20, 2014

Science on a T-shirt

Twitter can be extremely useful for many reasons. It can be a waste of time. It can be a fun waste of time!

My favourite hashtag this week is #scishirt. People post selfies of their science-themed T shirts. Some have institution's logos, often re-worked to get some effect. Some are funny. Some make you think, Oh God that's way over my head. But it's great to see how scientists are into their science.

Here's one for justifying slacking in the lab:


November 15, 2014

Tesla Taxis

What do you think of when you hear the word "Taxi"?

The answer depends on where you live. New Yorkers think Ford Crown Victoria painted in that iconic yellow. (So iconic, no privately owned car comes in that colour. Which is a pity, because it would make for a badly needed break from the reds, black&whites and blues on American streets).

Photo by David R. Tribble

London has its own iconic taxi, the FX4 with the cavernous passenger compartment that has plenty of space for luggage, baby stroller or cello. London's hackney cabs have recently abandoned the traditional black garb, and now come arrayed in a bewildering plethora of advertising graphics.

November 9, 2014

Average Work Commute Takes Six Weeks a Year

When I was growing up, we lived on the south side of Delft, a Dutch city of 100,000; my mom went to work on the north side, a 30-minute bike ride away, or 10 minutes by car if the weather was very bad. Her friends and acquaintances were always amazed: "You work all the way on the other side of town?"

But that was back when school children and working people still came home for lunch. If you lived 30 minutes from work, it would be hard to come home, have a decent lunch, and come back in the time normally allotted for lunch, about 90 minutes.

In places where workers don't come home for lunch, it turns out about half an hour is the average commuting time. This is true across the board in developed countries (including today's Netherlands).

Average commute times by zip code

This map shows the commute time in the US by zip code (a click on the map links to the interactive version). The countrywide average commute is - drumroll - 25 minutes.

October 29, 2014

The Price of a Prius

Cars are cheap in the US. I've said this before (and I will probably say it many more times). That's because, in the US, the price of a car is just that: the price of the car. The sales tax gets added on, but that varies from 7.5% (California) to nil (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon).

I've compiled the list price of a basic Toyota Prius in selected countries. I've chosen the Prius because it is sold everywhere, with the same hybrid drive and engine size, and in much the same version - although it's always amusing to see the variations in the websites. Here's a screen shot from Toyota's Chinese website:

Yeah, I know: I don't read those kanji characters either. But there is a trick that makes it possible for English speakers to navigate websites that don't even use alphabets: my tips here.

October 25, 2014

Solar Energy From a Road Surface is Now a Reality

Roads are great for allowing us to get from here to there in a quick and safe way. But while they're waiting to serve the next vehicle, they're just lying around idle, making the world warmer with their dark surfaces.

But it doesn't have to be that way. A city in the Netherlands just installed the first bit of road capable of generating electricity: this bike path - of course it's a bike path! - has solar panels embedded in the surface, beneath a protective glass layer.

October 14, 2014

Limits on car sales in Singapore: a model for capping carbon emissions?

Singaporean authorities would rather that you not buy a car at all. After all, the tiny city state has excellent state-of-the-art public transport, and not a lot of space for roads and parking. But its wealthy population loves cars; even steeply increasing road taxes didn't keep the automotive overpopulation from becoming an acute problem. By the 1980s Singapore's road congestion had become unbearable.

Enter the Certificate of Entitlement.

The COE scheme is birth control for cars - to be precise, import control: Every year somebody counts the number of cars that have been retired from Singapore's automotive fleet, either by being scrapped or by being sold abroad. Also, the desired number of cars is determined for the next year. Those two things set the number of new cars that can be sold for that year, embodied by Certificates of Entitlement.

A Certificate of Entitlement is the right to own a car in Singapore for ten years. The COEs go on an auction, so the price is determined by how badly people want to own a car. This month, a COE in the "small car" category (engines up to 1.6L and 130HP) went for S$ 63,880.

October 11, 2014

My Dutch Canondale

I was getting too old for my bike.

Not that I'm getting too old for biking. Let me explain.

My trusty bike is a Canondale that has been with me for twentyfive years now, and on which I spent happy days with my friends, tearing up the trails in the woods.

The bike easily accommodated my children when they came: first in a baby seat that I hung from the handlebars, then in a child seat on the back. I have two Dutch bikebags that I hang from the luggage rack, for errands to the library, the grocery store, etc.. The only thing you have to be careful about is that the Canondale, with its aluminum frame, is considerably lighter than a standard Dutch bike, so you have to be more careful balancing cargo - such as a baby at the handlebars.

About those handlebars. You know how mountain bikes have straight handlebars? It gives you better handling on rough terrain.

But I'm never on rough terrain any more. And the straight handlebar, not exactly ergonomic, was starting to hurt my wrists. Leaning on them while biking doesn't help that at all. Also, as I'm getting older I find that I'm less comfortable leaning over: I feel much better balanced on a Dutch bike that allows you to sit up straight.

I considered importing a Dutch bike. CelloDad told me I was crazy. And he has a point. A good Dutch bike of old-fashioned quality is not a cheap item, and then you have to get it over here somehow.

But I did the next best thing: bought myself a Dutch handlebar this summer. Dutch bike shops have a selection of them, with varying widths and different curvature. A handlebar is much cheaper than a whole Gazelle bike, and you can carry it inside a suitcase. Last week, I finally made it to a local bike shop, the haunts of one of my rideshare children; they did an expert job of installing the handlebar.

October 9, 2014

Greener Ways to Get There

I've written before of the lowest-carbon way to get from here to there, and summarised it in this graphic:

The people at 1BOG (which stands for One Block Off the Grid) have made a much larger infographic which is more complete and breaks things down by the distance traveled. I don't usually like large infographics, but this one is worthwhile because it shows that for transportation, not one size fits all.

A few takeaway points:

For travel inside or near town, nothing beats a bike. (And it makes you feel happy. And it's good for you!).

September 24, 2014

People's Climate March: of Community, Communication, and Things Which Must Not Be Named.

I've a confession to make: this is my very first march, ever. But even I could tell that this was going to be special, when I showed up at the train station at an ungodly hour, and the woman who got her ticket before me turned around, glanced at the sign that CelloPlayer had made, and said cheerfully, "Looks like we're headed for the same place", before disappearing to the platform.

When I had made my way onto the same platform, I could see her sitting a bit further down. But I never got a chance to say hi to her because a gentleman came up to me and said something about my sign. I looked up, into kindly eyes framed by white hair - and a rainbow beard.

Heaven help me, I stared. Like a five-year-old.

September 22, 2014

People's Climate March: so big, there was no end to it.

As my CelloPlayer was working on the sign that I was going to carry at the Climate March, we talked about how many people were expected to walk the March.

Being a geek, and never one to pass up a teaching moment, I pulled up a map of Central Park West where marchers were to collect. We set out to answer the question: if the organisers are expecting 100,000 people to show up for the march, would they fit in the space provided for the lineup?

September 20, 2014

Climate Action for Families

Want to get your family involved in action against climate change? Join the "families" section at the Climate March. After September 21, consider joining one of the organisations listed below.

Photo by Taro Taylor

September 13, 2014

Climate March: I'm Marching for my Mom

Of course, I'm marching for my children. Actually, I'm marching for all our children. And this is where my mom comes in.

For a number of years, my mom worked as a pediatrician in a tropical country. She worked with a doctor who ran his practice more like a charity clinic, and at public hospitals. She never had a private practice, which would have been the more lucrative option. But that's not why she became a doctor.

For a time, she lived in a tiny village where the village women would sometimes bring their sick children to her veranda: my mom always helped their children, without asking for payment. The next day those moms would be back to thank her, bringing half a dozen eggs, or a basket of vegetables: whatever they could spare. And a child on the mend.

September 9, 2014

How will you travel to the Climate March?

So, Bill McKibben of 350.org has extended an open invitation for everyone to come to New York and march. The People's Climate March is intended to push world leaders convening at the climate summit two days later on 23 September, to get into gear and start doing something meaningful about our collective carbon emissions.

Here's a vexing question that comes up around the Climate March: aren't marchers expending large amounts of carbon emissions to get to New York?

September 4, 2014

VW Golf TDI: 52 mpg

Road trip, mostly highway, for the beginning of the school year. That tank really could hold enough for 600 miles. My brave diesel Golf did 52mpg on the highway. Not a hybrid!

I just needed to brag record that.

August 20, 2014

Enough People

Following the post-war baby boom, and a burgeoning prosperity in the West, the 1960s were awash in cars as well as enterprising young people. It was almost inevitable that the practice of phone booth stuffing (remember phone booths?) gave way to car stuffing.

Fun, right?

At the time, the favourite car to stuff with people was the VW Beetle. And the Morris Mini. Around the same time, concern about world population - or rather, over-population - began to surface among the general public. Maybe being immobilised over the steering wheel by the bodies of friends made people think.

August 15, 2014

Eight Ways to Catch the Train - None by Driving Your Car

Rail is wonderful. Rail is great. Rail is low-carbon, low stress and often low-cost as well. But too often, the lack of a good way to get to and from the railway station can be a dealbreaker. So here are a few ways to get access to the station, as modeled in Delft, a Dutch city of about 100,000.

1. BYO bike
On your home turf, your own bike is the method of choice. Bicycle parking, or "fietsenstalling" in Dutch, is free on the outside racks. There is a small daily fee for a spot on the covered racks where your bike stays dry and an attendant keeps an eye on things. (The building's colour, "Delft Blue", was probably chosen for the benefit of visitors).

Most stations in Dutch cities offer bicycle parking, ranging from a few racks in small towns, to the three-story bicycle palace next to Central Station in Amsterdam. Which is pretty full on most work days.

If you must have your very own bike where you get off the train, you can bring it with you for a small fee. There are designated places where you can store your bike on the train.

August 9, 2014

Raahgiri: Car-free Sunday, Indian style

This is what traffic in New Delhi often looks like.

Photo by NOMAD

Enough New Delhi residents are fed up with their roads being clogged by cars, that they have decided to take back the streets. Starting at Connaught Place, one of New Delhi's shopping and business districts since it was designed by W.H. Nicholls, the Chief Architect to the Indian government in the early 20th century.

August 5, 2014

Review: 2014 Honda Civic

Did a double take on the street. There was this good-looking car parked across the street - as in, not "vanilla" - and it was labeled Honda Civic!

Here. This is what Americans think of when you say "Honda Civic". Right?

It's about as conventional, un-offensive, unremarkable as you can get. If you were to rob a bank, you'd choose a US Civic for the getaway car. For its ability to get lost in the crowd.

That's not what I saw. This is what I saw:

August 1, 2014

How to Drive on the Wrong Side of the Road (and Live to Tell the Tale)

Are you living where you drive on the right and moving, or considering holidays to a place where they have left-hand drive, like Great Britain, Hong Kong or Japan? Or the other way around? Here are a few strategies to make driving on the "wrong" side of the road safer.

Photo by Alex Proimos

July 26, 2014

Sweet BlueMotion

The Aerosmith song starts "You talk about things and nobody cares / You're wearing out things that nobody wears".

Well, have I been driving a thing that nobody drives. Nobody in the US, that is. I'll talk about it, too, and I don't care that you don't care. But you should care.

I've been driving a rented Golf for a week. Except that the steering wheel is on the right side of the car (more on that in another post), it's just the same as our Golf. Same sturdy seating, not overstuffed. Same ample trunk that easily fits our luggage with room to spare. Same easy handling.

However, under the hood it's a little different: it has the 1.6L diesel engine that is not for sale in the US (where the smallest engine is the 2.0L TDI). This rental car was augmented by Volkswagen's "BlueMotion" suite of technologies that boost the fuel efficiency.

I confess freely: I was lousy at hypermiling this car.

July 24, 2014

The Difference Between Owning a Car and Being Mobile

It makes the news when a city like Helsinki announces that, by 2025, its suite of mobility-on-demand solutions will be so comprehensive that it will be quite pointless to own a car. But in fact, the trend in many large cities has been going that way for a long time.

Compare these two pictures of Oxford Street, London's shopping paradise, the first taken in the up-beat 1950s, the second this summer.

Oxford Street, 1955. Photo by Ben Brooksbank

In the days just after the War, Oxford Street was already lined with shops. There was enough space for three cars abreast in each direction. The sidewalk was fairly generous. Private automobiles shared the road with the famed double-decker buses, and the iconic London taxis, all black.

July 6, 2014

The Difference Between a Road and a Means of Transport

A recent Op-Ed in the New York Times sighs, "America’s infrastructure is now so wretched that, in some areas, the only people who drive straight are the drunks. Anyone who is sober swerves to avoid potholes."

So yes, the Federal excise tax on gasoline, which helps pay for highway maintenance, has been stuck at 18 cents a gallon since 1993, quite unaffected by inflation or the slowly decreasing use of gasoline. And states and local authorities are broke.

Photo by Sascha Pöschl.

But the way road infrastructure is built and managed could also be a lot better. My dad, a retired civil engineer, always says that construction is far easier than maintenance. He especially sighs at "vanity" projects in developing countries, where developed-world roads are built, complete with beautiful overpasses and glorious bridges, but where maintenance funds are not assigned, so that the steel and concrete glory starts to crumble faster than you can say "repair funds".

July 2, 2014

Up! Holland up!

Some time in the course of the 2010 World Cup, I looked out of the window of my dad's flat in Holland and spotted, right on the parking lot, a diminuitive Volkwagen up!, all decked out in orange and with the works "up! Holland up!" painted down its sides.

I grinned. It was a brilliant marriage of the name of Volkswagen's tiniest car, the up!, and the fighting song of one of Europe's smallest nations. Very much tongue in cheek, it goes, "Hup, Holland, hup! Don't put the lion in its undershirt." It is sung in the key of good nature, by supporters of Dutch teams at international sporting events.

June 29, 2014

Counter Coulter

There was a bewildering article about soccer written by one Ann Coulter, who is apparently a conservative political commentator. From what I can tell - it's not easy to read through the article's ranting - she seems to say soccer is a liberal plot to make Americans like the metric system, and will inevitably lead to the nation's moral decay, QED.

It's hard to fathom how a columnist is so willing to write about something she doesn't understand. I don't think Coulter has watched a soccer match in her life. Or not a good one, anyway. It's the only way someone can claim that "Individual achievement is not a big factor in soccer".

June 23, 2014

Soccer Flags

You wouldn't necessarily notice much in the US, except in ethnic neighbourhoods, but football fever is on. As in: soccer! Mostly you can tell because cars have started to sprout from their side windows these small flags, fluttering in the breeze, and indicating the country supported by the driver.

As of this writing, it's early days in the 2014 World Cup tournament, so things are still relatively mellow. But as the final matches approach, the countries whose teams have made it to the semi-finals will suddenly break out in the national colours. In the Netherlands, everything turns an eye-watering orange, in one of those country-wide nods to the royal house originated by William of Orange.

June 16, 2014

Google Car: the case for the improbable

When I was a freshman, and an international student newly arrived in the United States, I learned to my astonishment that "breakfast cereal" means not Kellogg's corn flakes or Alpen Muesli - the only ones I had encountered before - but an entire isle of variously shaped and coloured offerings. My first grocery shopping trips where always whole-afternoon affairs.

I also found out about this game called football. Where feet are hardly used at all. Apart from that the rules were all mystifying to me: even the shape of the ball was something I'd never seen before, like a lemon gone wrong. Of course, there are plenty of other games with obtuse rules, such as cricket or snooker, and odd ways of keeping track of the score, such as in tennis or snooker, and creative and unusual orders of hitting the balls, such as in pool - or snooker.

My freshman year was the first year my dorm had gone co-ed. There were plenty of kind upperclassmen who were eager to explain the rules of football to a foreign newcomer. But I waved away the kind offers, and set out to divine the rules just from watching the games. It was a jumble. Here were these guys with shoulders like the Incredible Hulk's and legs like Rudolf Valentino's, huddling, bending, throwing the ball in the wrong direction, and then all running around in incomprehensible patterns that made my friends shout an appreciative "Yeah!" I remained throroughly mystified.

[The Obamas' dog probably has a better idea of why he's running than I did about the rules of football.]

But one day I wandered outside, into a pickup game of touch football. My friends invited me in, on the principle of learning by doing. It was kind of them: really, I had no clue what was going on.

May 31, 2014

Size Creep

When I was pregnant, I started wearing men's T-shirts over skirts of which the waist had ferocious stretch. After all, my waist was going through a ferocious stretch. It was very comfortable to wear clothes that matched that.

By the time I was ready to buy new clothes again, it was a decade later, and I had all but forgotten what my size was. A store assistant sized me up and said, "You'd be a six, ma'am. Maybe a four."

From the way she turned away from me I could tell that my face was set to maximum incredulity. It was all I could do to keep myself from saying, "You're out of your mind. Before the babies I was a ten. I'm sure I'm a twelve now. There is no. bloomin'. way. that I'm a six."

I tried on a few things.

I'm a six.

[Original painting: The Abduction of Deianeira by the Centaur Nessus (ca. 1640) by Peter Paul Rubens, the painter of all those "rubenesque" ladies.]

I went home and rifled through my old stuff. Sure enough: a decade has passed, and now six is the new twelve. This size creep is downright creepy, if you ask me. I don't like to have my perceptions manipulated, thanks very much.

May 29, 2014

Enough Hockey Sticks for TWO Teams

Now that my eldest has gained admission to a Canadian university, I am reminded that hockey is the Canadian national sport. And that my best friend in college used to play it: she learned to skate in an unbelievably short time, and got so good at running circles around everyone on the ice that she was appointed the captain of my dorm's co-ed hockey team, competing intramurally.

Before games, she would go around the dorm, tear people away from their problem sets and papers, to scrape together enough players to field a team of six (including the goalie). If she was lucky she got a few extras. I would come to some of the games, to shout.

These days, I don't think of hockey much. But I do think of hockey sticks, a lot. Michael Mann, the climate scientist, has done pioneering work on how the globally averaged temperature has been steady for nearly 10,000 years - if anything, decreasing slowly - until the onset of the Industrial Revolution. After that global temperatures started rising rapidly. So if you graph global average temperature as a function of time, the data lies on a curve that resembles a hockey stick.

Lots of global warming deniers have tried to beat up on Michael Mann (with non-physical sticks, like law suits) but the hockey stick metaphor has proven robust and, if anything, has become stronger over time. And while globally averaged temperature is the first quantity shown to have time dependence resembling a hockey stick, it is not the only one.

There are in fact enough hockey sticks to field a whole team, plus a few backups.

May 16, 2014

Warning Labels for Gasoline Pumps

A plucky teen has let her voice be heard, even though she is not yet old enough to vote. Emily Kelsall, a sixteen year old living in West-Vancouver, sees clearly the link between global warming and the everyday action of filling a car's gas tank, and wants drivers to see it too. In order to help motorists connect the dots, she has taken a proposal to West Vancouver's municipal council.

The way to get her message out is very simple: put warning labels on the nozzles of gas pumps. Every time drivers fill their tank, they can't help seeing the label reminding them that every mile they drive contributes to the carbon emisssions that are causing climate change, with consequences that we can all feel even today.

Emily Kelsall was inspired to her extraordinary action by hearing a radio interview with Rob Shirkey, the founder of Our Horizon, who points out that municipalities (at least the ones in Ontario) "have the legal authority to require gasoline retailers to put warning labels on gas pumps similar to those found on cigarette packages". And that cities and towns should use that authority.

May 14, 2014

I Bleeping Love Science

Well, that's it. I've come to the end of a broad overview of planetary science as it pertains to climate change. Affectionately known as 12.340x, it's a course (online through edX) on Global Warming Science, given (mostly) by MIT's Kerry Emmanuel.

In contrast to the World Bank's course on climate change that I had taken earlier (through Coursera), this one was all about the science, and explicitly not about policy. In twelve weeks, it surveyed topics like paleoclimate, the composition of the atmosphere over earth's history, heat transfer of all kinds, atmospheric and ocean circulations, the carbon cycle, forcings and feedbacks, and finally a little bit about the models that need to incorporate all of that in order to give us a sense of where we're headed next.

When you start to get into the details of how it works, you get your nose rubbed into it: our planet is stunningly beautiful.

As a single example, take the thermohaline circulation: it's the large-scale ocean flows, driven place-to-place differences of temperature and salt content, that churns the oceans and help transport heat from tropical regions towards the poles.

The "conveyor belt" looks a bit like the blood circulation in the human body. In the Atlantic, waters flow at the surface toward the North Pole (mostly scrunched into a narrow strip: the Gulf Stream), then sinks down, flowing back toward the South Pole at large depth.

May 11, 2014

Road Safety

In 2013 there were 570 road deaths in the Netherlands. Of those, more than half - 320 - were non-vehicle deaths, that is, pedestrians, bicyclists, and riders of scootmobiles: electric mobility aids that share bike paths.

Small numbers. But then again, it's a small country with population less than 17 million. For a more realistic comparison, we divide the road death numbers by the population, and find 34 road fatalities per million, about half the European average.

For comparison, in 2010 there were 32,885 road deaths in the US, or 107 per million, the overwhelming majority were drivers or passengers of vehicles. That seems a lot more until you remember that Dutch people don't drive all that much or that far. Very, very few have the supercommutes that are not uncommon in the US. I mean, in most places in the Netherlands, driving three hours would land you outside the country and in some places, two countries over.

May 7, 2014

National Climate Assessment: Why I'm Cautiously Elated

The National Climate Assessment, the culmination of a four-year effort to catalog the effects of climate change on the United States, is a breath of fresh air in the national discussion of climate change.

Finally, scientists are saying it like it is, without using technical jargon or probabilities: The NCA report states bluntly that climate change has arrived in the United States, and spells out the many ways that it is making life harder - and more expensive - for many of us. That's us, not our children or grandchildren.

The report emphasises that, as we have already started to see, climate change is not about a gradual warming up of the place we call home: it's more properly called climate disruption, or even climate chaos, where wild weather events frequently dominate the news.

The report is huge. But it is not a dry document stuffed with scientific jargon, equations and graphs. It has been presented on a beautifully crafted website that is easy to navigate at several levels, from a cursory look at the key points, to the "highlights" to an in-depth look at the relevant pages of the report itself. The designer(s) of this fantastic site deserve a medal, really.

May 2, 2014

Our Children's Trust

Our children look to us to feed them when they are hungry. They come for a hug when they are scared, or very happy, or just for the joy of being hugged. When they have a boo-boo we kiss their tears away. And they count on us to do all that: to keep them safe, healthy and happy. We have our children's trust on a personal level; it is an enormous responsibility that we take on when we become parents, and one that we bear gladly.

It is in fact such a large responsibility that many of us make provisions in case we die while our children are still minors: we write wills that specify who will take care of our children, and who will manage whatever funds and property we may leave for them, until they come of age. That person is called a trustee, for the trust we invest in them, to act like a parent in our stead.

Looking up the legal meaning of the word Trust, I found this:

In common law legal systems, a trust is a relationship whereby property is held by one party for the benefit of another.

In the context of our home, the planet, that sounds a lot like the native American saying:

April 22, 2014

Google Maps: directions with options

First there was "You can't get there from here", that phrase that country folk love to trot out when a hapless out-of-stater got hopelessly lost in Maine and had to resort asking the natives for the directions. Or so the out-of-staters said.

Then there was the AAA Trip-tik: the set of mini-maps where the friendly AAA representative highlighted the route you were to take to get from A to B. Depending on the trip, you could end up lugging a small library back to your car, of the Trip-tik itself, plus the maps and the AAA guides that went with it. For a cross-country trip we're talking the weight of a small encyclopedia.

Photo by Darren Meacher

Then - oh marvel! - there was the GPS device that was built in or (more commonly) precariously attached to your windshield with a suction cup. Super-expensive versions told you the real-time route, accounting for any detours due to road contructions of traffic jams.

But all that is so twentieth century.

April 21, 2014

The travel bureaus that put Jack Kerouac on the road

I may be the most reluctant automotive writer you've ever met, but I'm still an automotive writer, so it's sort of embarrassing that I've never read the quintessential book on autos and motion, "On The Road", Jack Kerouac's paean to high-speed road travel, women and jazz, that marked and inspired the bohemian hedonism of the Beat generation. So I'm reading it now.

I really can get into (or, as the book would say, I "dig") the rejection of materialism, but I can't say I dig the need for speed, the zipping by countless breathlessly beautiful places this country has to offer those who take the time to really explore. All of that natural beauty is just filler material between the cities with their jazz bars and philosophising friends, something to be got through as quickly as possible.

Because all the characters in the book are living from hand to mouth, even a ride on the Greyhound bus is too much of an expense: they hitch rides if they have to, but their preferred way of getting from place to place is by sharing the drive in a private car.

And what cars these are! The most memorable ones are detailed by Dennis Mansker. The photo above is of a 1947 Cadillac limousine, the kind that in the book was whipped from Denver to Chicago (nearly 1200 miles) in seventeen hours, at the end of which it was delivered to its owner's swanky residence, all dented, covered in mud and with the speedometer busted after the first time it was forced past 110mph.

April 12, 2014

Watch "Years of Living Dangerously" - but not alone

There's a buzz going around about "Years of Living Dangerously", the multi-part climate change documentary. It premieres on Sunday, April 13 on the Showtime channel. You can watch the first episode free at the "Years" website and on YouTube.

But before you settle in to watch it, you may want to find someone with whom to watch it, to discuss it, to digest it. Because while the documentary is a masterpiece of storytelling and will be easy enough to watch, it may be more difficult to absorb the message.

April 7, 2014

"There has been no global warming since 1998" - Or has there?

You hear this statement a lot in discussions about climate change. It is one of the most oft-repeated arguments against global warming: The average global surface temperature has leveled off. And it's true.

Just take a look at this graph, which shows the globally averaged surface temperature rise, from 1997 to 2014, compared to the average temperature in the period 1951-1980. The temperature really hasn't changed that much, if at all.

A careless observer would say, that's it: it's settled, there is no global warming, and we can all go home now (in our big fat SUVs, of course). A climate change denier would take this data and crow in comment threads all over the internet (but never in a scientific journal) that 97% of climate scientists are wrong to say that global warming exists, and wrong to say that humans are causing it.

But that is taking a myopic view of the world. And it's not very scientific.

April 6, 2014

Best of #ReplaceBikeWithCar so far

There's a Twitter fest on this weekend, marked by the hashtag #ReplaceBikeWithCar, where people quote things usually said about bikes and riding but replace them with cars and driving.

Check it out: it's good for a quick pick-me-up. A few of my favourites below

April 5, 2014

Fuel Efficiency and the Jevons Paradox

In the discussion of energy (or rather, how to curb our profligate use of energy), often the topic of energy efficiency comes up. And just as often, someone will say, "Energy efficiency doesn't work. Jevons paradox".

That's glib. A bit like saying, "Food stamps don't work. QED."

While we all know what "QED" means, maybe we should take a closer look at the Jevons paradox. This refers to the idea that, as technology improves the efficiency of a widget, that widget will get used more. A lot more. So much more, that the energy needed to run the widget for everyone is more than the energy needed before the innovation came along.

Jevons based this on his observations on the use of coal during the Industrial Revolution: As the newly invented steam machines quickly became more efficient, the price of coal went down. Economists like Jevons would say such a price decrease in energy encouraged the building of more steam machines, so you ended up with a higher total coal consumption than before, even as the amount of coal needed for each machine was reduced.

Photo Chris Allen

March 31, 2014

IPCC Report: Impacts of Climate Change

"Risk" is the word of the day. It occurs hundreds of times in the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) released today.

We now have a much clearer view of what climate change means to human life around the world. The picture is grim.

The "Summary for Policymakers" reads like a litany of human misery, and some of it has already arrived. Tallying the risks of climate change around the continents, it's all "Food shortage" - "Water stress" - "Heat waves" - "Flood damage" - "Disease spread". And, for some of us living in low-lying island states, "Loss of homeland". That's just the impact on humans. Then there's the worldwide tragedy of the unraveling ecosystems in our acidifying oceans, and the species extinction looming everywhere.

If there's a storm coming, we batten down the hatches. We need to batten down the hatches now.

We all deal with risk, all the time: That's why we pay for home insurance and car insurance. It may be a burden on the family budget. But we all pay it, because it will cover our sweet behinds in the - rare and no-to-be-hoped-for - event of some calamity like a house fire, a tree coming down on the roof, or a car accident.

Climate change mitigation IS home insurance. It may seem expensive. But if it preserves our home, our Earth, it will be amply worth it.

" Climate Change: the state of the science "

To learn more about climate change, start with the Resources at Global Warming Fact of the Day, which delivers climate change news free of denialist propaganda: I curate its Learning Center.



You may also like:
1. Slash your carbon footprint
2. We Need Good News on Climate Change
3. Let's Talk with Our Children about Global Warming, with Sense and Sensitivity


March 21, 2014

My Climate Change Talk to Parents

Yesterday, I had a chance to speak at CelloPlayer's school about climate change. Not to the students, but to their parents. The title was "Climate Change and YOU".

The talk was in the morning, right after drop-off time. This is a Waldorf School, so chairs were arranged in a half-circle around the projection screen. ViolaPlayer, who is enjoying spring break this week, occupied one of those chairs (and bailed me out when my ancient laptop froze in the middle of the talk, and I nearly froze in paralysis, by getting it going again).

I started by briefly going over the greenhouse effect, the link between global warming and the carbon emissions from fossil fuels, and the various global effects, emphasizing that we are already starting to see some of these effects in our daily lives. Take, for instance, the wild weather we've been having all over the world, with extremes both in precipitation and in temperature.

March 15, 2014

Paris Gets Free Public Transport for the Weekend

The French capital has got a first-hand taste of what it's like to be Los Angeles: in the past week, Paris has emerged from a cold snap. Paris has enjoyed cool nights, and unseasonably warm days. Paris has not been visited by much wind. Paris can't breathe.

The BBC reports that a thick blanket of smog has settled over Paris, a result of pollution from automotive traffic and industry, and a combination of weather conditions much like those often seen in Los Angeles or Salt Lake City. On Friday the Parisian count of fine particles, that is so dangerous to lung health, is higher than in most Chinese cities on that same day.